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Board and Circuses 

It began like a summer thundershower out of a faint and far-off rumble. Six days, several court motions and a citywide conversation later, it was resolved with a new state law and an agreement between school board members to try to work together. In the days between the evening of June 3, when school board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz first caught sight of a notice for a special meeting less than 24 hours later, to the midday announcement last Thursday that all of the parties had agreed to move forward, the school board fracas generated intense local attention. In the meantime, Superintendent Anthony Amato's job and the governance structure of the district hung in the balance.

What follows is a recounting of six days that rocked the school board. It was a show that could only have happened in New Orleans. But in its aftermath, will everyone remember how excited they got about public school education in the first hot days of summer?

CLAUDIA KENT WAS CONFIDENT she'd get a seat at the school board meeting last Friday when she left her office early at 4 p.m. A few minutes later, she was outside of the district office building at 3510 Gen. DeGaulle Drive with a crowd of would-be spectators who had been turned away at the entrance.

"There were 65 spectator seats in a small conference room, and those were filled by two o'clock," said Kent, looking disgusted. "I heard the earliest that people came was one o'clock, and they started issuing these little homemade cards with numbers on them. After the number 65, they cut it off."

Most of the 80 or so people milling about on the sidewalk by 6 p.m. weren't regulars at school board proceedings. They had come because of the rumor that this meeting had been hastily called to dismiss Superintendent of Schools Anthony Amato. The fact that board members had scheduled a meeting to occur a few hours after Amato was to board a plane for a long-anticipated family reunion in Puerto Rico only added to the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. Even those with no feelings for the reserved superintendent were drawn in by the image of a family man denied a well-deserved trip by petty politics.

A late afternoon thundershower had just passed, but the storm inside was only getting started. Moments before, board member Una Anderson had arrived from federal court with a temporary restraining order that prevented the board from firing Amato. "Una tapped me on the shoulder on the way in and said, ŒWe got the restraining order,'" Kent said of Anderson's entrance. "She was telling everyone on the way in."

The response was a general roar of approval. "We want Amato!" the crowd chanted.

The drama of the event had put everyone on a first-name basis, and the gathering buzzed with allusions to Una and Jimmy and Tony and Ellenese and Gail. Jeff Cantin's crudely drawn cardboard sign read simply, "Let Tony Stay."

Cantin was one normal citizen who decided to come after reading the morning news. "I dunno, you look in the paper and you see something wrong with the town every day," said Cantin. The idea that a meeting was planned for the same time that Amato literally would be in the air smelled bad to him, as did the way that school board president Cheryl Mills and former president Ellenese Brooks-Simms refused to comment on what the board planned to do. "You see some people making it worse and some people making it better, and you find a guy like Tony who seems to be making hard decisions," Cantin said.

Not everyone gathered on the walkway had come feeling that way. Albertha Keeler is a third-generation stakeholder in the Orleans system; not only did she attend public schools here, so did her children and so do her five grandchildren. When she heard the rumors Thursday night, Keeler decided to come down and hear for herself what concerns her school board had with the superintendent it had brought in only 15 months before. When she arrived and found that she was excluded from the meeting, she stayed around to protest against the board.

Karran Harper Royal, a regular at school board meetings, later said that the arrangements that Friday, June 4, were nothing unusual. ŒThey always hold special meetings in that room," said Royal, who added that she's seen people turned away and made to stand in the halls before.

Most of those outside, though, saw nothing usual about what many termed an insult and a violation of democratic process. "Who do they think they are?" asked Carolyn Osborne Cowley, a public schools graduate and the parent of three public school children, laughing in disbelief. "And how dumb do they think we are?"

INSIDE THE CHAMBER, THE SELECT FEW who had gained admission -- many of them district insiders -- were not getting much more insight into what most of the board members were thinking. An invocation by board member Elliot "Doc" Willard set the ominous tone, with Willard pleading that no matter what the outcome might be, the children should be remembered. Then the meeting opened with a lengthy discussion of an upcoming board retreat and some portentous comments that it might now need to be rescheduled.

As the discussions droned on, those inside the room hadn't yet heard of the restraining order. A paper was seen shifting hands from Area 1 Superintendent Matthew George to Anderson to school board attorney Clare Jupiter. A line of regulars in the first row rose to speak in favor of a drafted board statement against HB 1659, the proposed state legislation to move some board powers in a failing school district into the hands of its superintendent. Board members made comparisons to Nazi Germany and ancient Rome. And all eyes followed the paper's progress through the room.

Meanwhile, the scene outside was heating up. Thomas Milliner, who described himself as a public school parent and a graduate, read aloud from a petition. "Everything they are doing in that room tonight is illegal because it violates the open meetings law of the state of Louisiana and the Louisiana Constitution," he stated.

Cowley and Lakeview parent Glenn Collins had just met that afternoon, but they already were teaming up to start a petition in favor of keeping Amato. By early evening, they garnered 11 spiral notebook pages full of signatures and addresses. A group of teachers held up colorfully painted signs on neatly stretched canvas. "Teachers for Amato because Amato is for the children," read one. "Shame on the board," another said.

Tiffany LeCesne, a teacher at Lusher Extension, stressed Amato's work in making professional development available for teachers. But her comments were drowned out by Dyan French Cole, a longtime activist and former NAACP leader. Standing with one colleague by her side, French Cole challenged the crowd as if she were a crowd herself, her voice rising to a booming alto.

"Racism is still rampant!" French Cole screamed, her face a scant few inches from the face of parent Lynn Squire, who tried to argue back. "Why did they try to take over the schools last time? Know your history."

In fact, the last time the state took over the Orleans Parish School Board was in August 1960, when a segregationist state government used every means possible to thwart school integration. That episode devolved into one of Louisiana's more spectacular circuses, with legislators issuing orders aimed at preventing integration and Wright countermanding them on a daily basis.

Then, hateful white "cheerleaders" stood outside of the William Frantz and McDonogh 19 schools pelting little girls with stones and tomatoes. But the cheerleaders worked against their own cause as images of their shameful behavior flashed across televisions from coast to coast, advancing instead of thwarting the cause of integration.

The school board members opposed to HB 1659 seemed to fail to see how firing Amato, or even appearing to move to fire him, in secrecy and haste might backfire in a similar manner. By Thursday evening, legislators had already reacted to the rumored school board coup by blasting the board members and putting HB 1659 on the fast track. Because part of the bill changed the rule for firing the superintendent to require five out of seven votes, a vote for HB 1659 rapidly morphed into a vote to keep Amato. More than that, though, the bill stripped the board of its power to control jobs and contracts. As such, it looked like a retaliatory measure aimed at curtailing the patronage power of the board.

Outside the district offices on Friday, the crowd was a mix of black and white. Speaker after speaker said they were there for the children and the board was not.

"This is not about race," Kim Dolliolle, shaking with rage, yelled at French Cole as the cameras converged.

"This is about the board's power and control now," said attorney Dennis Moore quietly. "It's not about the children."

Away from the crowd, French Cole spoke measuredly but fiercely, stressing that what was happening wasn't about Amato. Instead, she said, it was about interfering with the civil rights of the voters who had put the school board members into office. "The school board members should've been able to go in there and do what they needed to do," said French Cole. The people outside the building weren't there for the poor, black children who made up the vast majority of the systems' students, she said.

Into the light of late afternoon came City Councilmember Jay Batt, who moments before had stormed out of the board meeting after being scolded for approaching the dais to confer with Willard. "It's a f--king joke," Batt had said, leaving the room. Stepping outside, he threw up his hands and repeated that the school board is "a joke." Then doors opened again, this time revealing Anderson and state Rep. Steve Scalise. The restraining order had been served. Roars and hoots went up. Anderson put up her hands and the crowd fell silent. "I want to say, ŒThank you,'" Anderson said. "It's people like you that stand up for what's right that makes a difference. If the board has accomplished one thing, it has been to pull all of the community together."

Protesters milled about, waiting for various board members to run the gauntlet to reach the parking lot. First Brooks-Simms, then Glapion made their way out. TV and print reporters circled each as they left in a tight, gentle circle, walking them all the way to their vehicles. No other board members emerged.

"This is not about racism," said Moore. "A lot of people want to say it's about racism. But if you look at the legislator who initiated this bill, she was an African-American woman. It's about the children."

"We want Amato!" the chant began again, haltingly.

"You can have him!" French Cole called. "Take him home with you."

THE EVENTS THAT WOULD OCCUR throughout the next week all were seeded in that Friday's gathering. The hastily called meeting and the parents on the sidewalk, the allegations of cronyism and corruption, and the refusal of players to answer questions, all set a solidly New Orleans tableau in motion. So did the triumphant arrival of Una Anderson and the absence of Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who had declined to attend the meeting. News of the two board members' legal trump card -- as well as the rumbling that the elite were really using this as part of a larger conspiracy to keep the rest of the city in its place -- chased each other through the city. Meanwhile, the Legislature raced the clock to hasten a bill into committee.

By the time the termites began swarming that Friday evening, though, one thing had been firmly established: the groundswell of support behind Anderson and Fahrenholtz and against the board had both legs and a good set of vocal chords. Still, the jury was out until the various forces came to bear on the bill in committee -- and until the court of Judge Thomas Porteous, Section T, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, convened to hear the arguments for and against the restraining order that prevented the school board from firing Amato.

In the meantime, the weekend found school board critic and cable access host Sandra Hester-Wheeler in the unaccustomed position of defending the school board. On her weekly talk show, Hester-Wheeler and four guests discussed first the restraining order, then HB 1659. The consensus? What was going on was a power grab by two school board members and the Louisiana Legislature.

"It's a myth that he's being micromanaged," Hester's guest Assata Olugbala, a devoted board watcher and former public school principal, said of Amato. She pointed out that the board approved the majority of his proposals.

"Let's dispel one myth right now: this is not about the children," said Karren Harper Royal, also a guest on the show. She alleged that access to contracts, not a desire to improve education, was the motivating force behind Democratic state Rep. Karen Carter's bill. Before, she said, you had seven people deciding on who would get contracts, and each of those people represented their respective districts and their needs. "If I was an unscrupulous contractor, instead of having to grease the palms of four people I'd only have to grease one," she said.

As written, Harper Royal added, the bill allows the Legislature to change the definition of "academically in crisis" so that "if we get better, they can raise the bar." She laughed. "It's an insane piece of legislation."

"This gives so much power to one person, it reminds me of Hitler and Mussolini," Hester-Wheeler concluded.

ON MONDAY, JUDGE PORTEOUS decided not to immediately hear cases related to the board and Amato. This cleared the way for a series of competing press conferences, which for a time was the only way combatants would speak to one another. The restrained school board members tried to throw the book at Amato -- in this case, a newly minted thick book titled Performance Issues Regarding Anthony Amato. But they only succeeded in creating a new local catch-phrase. By early afternoon, friends were greeting each other by paraphrasing Brooks-Simms' angry comments to the camera, saying, "Do you think I'm a stupid woman?"

In his evening press conference, Amato refused to explain, and then did explain, the key points raised by the binder of documents handed out at the board's morning show.

More interesting was the determined parent and teacher who'd talked her way into the press conference. "I came out here and lurked around in my car and knew something would happen eventually," said Margaret Leaf, who came with her 5-year-old daughter, Pearlie. "When the security guard finally told me there was a press conference, I asked could I go." While they waited, Pearlie kept busy drawing on pages she borrowed from a reporter. Leaf said she'd been impressed by the superintendent the first time she heard him speak. "I'm here to support Amato," she said firmly.

BY TUESDAY, THE PUBLIC HAD shifted its hungry attention away from the halls of the district offices, the possibility of a continued school board meeting, and even Amato. Instead, the press converged on the federal courthouse at Poydras and Camp streets and on the state Capitol. It was as if a schoolyard fight had been corralled, and its players taken to see the principal.

Would the fight continue, either with the restraining order lifted or the proposed bill lingering in committee? One way or another, it seemed that a higher authority -- or two -- were about to weigh in.

In the Capitol, speakers for the bill included Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Karran Harper Royal was disturbed. "That same day, the committee approved a concurrent resolution to ask BESE to study possible negative effects of the LEAP test," said Harper Royal indignantly after the session. "With all this other stuff, you never heard anything about that. But don't you think that's important?"

At federal court, spectators outnumbered lawyers. And there were a lot of lawyers.

Andy Lee, lead attorney for the team representing Una Anderson and Jimmy Fahrenholtz, later said that 20 lawyers from the Jones Walker law firm worked through the weekend on the case. A squad of those lawyers, whose services were provided pro bono by the firm, sat behind the defendants' table. At the other table sat school board lawyers Clare Jupiter and Trevor Bryan.

Of course, Anderson and Fahrenholtz are part of the school board, and part of Jupiter's argument challenged the idea that the school board could in effect sue itself. Bryan, meanwhile, challenged the notion that Anderson and Fahrenholtz could seek protection under the 14th amendment. They had suffered no loss of liberty or property, he argued. Nor did they have a right to act on behalf of Amato. "How do we know Amato wouldn't want to accept full salary?" asked Bryan, referring to the one-year salary Amato would receive upon being fired.

Porteous interjected a few sharp comments into arguments. "I'm glad the First Amendment is alive and well in Louisiana," he jibed in the middle of Jupiter's discussion of the school board members' right to make statements. At another point, he asked the lawyers if they were trying to establish their right to a hearing. "Seeing that you're here, you've already established that," he said.

At 12:30 p.m., the judge sent everyone away for two hours. At 2:30 p.m. sharp, he returned to the courtroom to read his decision into the record. Citing the Brown v. Board of Education case and noting its 50th anniversary, he said that the disruption of the school system by the firing of its superintendent without notice would make it unlikely that the schools could attract another qualified leader. Anderson and Fahrenholtz's civil rights were endangered by being forced to participate in a firing that endangered the city's schoolchildren. He was keeping the restraining order in place, amending it to allow Amato to be fired with 10 days notice and for cause. A hearing was set for June 15.

"Woooo, they lost big time," said one reporter, whistling toward the board's side.

Outside, the winners hung around for a few minutes, laughing and smiling. Roberta Brown, head of an organization called Women on the Move, stayed around. But she wasn't laughing at all. Brown called herself a staunch supporter of her school board member, Ellenese Brooks-Simms. And she thought she understood why Brooks-Simms had played such a pivotal role. "Seems like Ellenese brought Amato in, and she's trying to correct that mistake," she said.

Forty-five minutes later, Fahrenholtz was in shorts, loafers and a button-down cotton shirt, rejoicing with a martini in hand at the French Quarter's Bombay Club.

"I feel like the Greeks at Thermopylae," said Fahrenholtz, grinning broadly.

"They had better legs," jibed Sid Arroyo, Fahrenholtz' campaign manager and his conversational partner on their weekly call-in show on WVOG-AM radio. The show airs weekly from the club, which has the atmosphere of a British pub in a tropical outpost. Despite the victory, the bar was quiet during the hourlong radio show.

It's a great day for the children of the city of New Orleans, Fahrenholtz said. He plugged Jones Walker for donating lawyers' time "for the kids, for the city."

"This had nothing to do with race," he said to a friend who called before the show. The call-in portion is often contentious, but this afternoon's callers were all of one mind -- congratulatory and full of praise for Una Anderson and the show's host. "I heard Michael Moore wants to make a movie of it," one caller joked.

After the show, Fahrenholtz stepped outside for a live on-camera interview, then came back to the bar for a second martini. "The money that has been spent on the attorneys on the other side came out of the classrooms, and people should realize that," he said.

LAST THURSDAY MORNING, Gambit Weekly placed a call to Jones Walker for comment. A few minutes before 3 p.m., the firm called back and put attorney Andy Lee and school board member Una Anderson on the line. "We have reached a resolution with the other parties in the federal court case," said Anderson. The two sides had forged a truce just hours before the first board members were to be deposed in preparation for a hearing to determine if any illegal secret meetings had taken place concerning the firing of Amato.

With the court's blessing, the restraining order prohibiting the firing of the superintendent was continued indefinitely. Anderson and Fahrenholtz were dropping any suits about illegal meetings.

HB 1659 had another rough day, weathering the addition and subtraction of various amendments that ultimately enhanced the strength of New Orleans' school superintendent. By 5 p.m., it was state law.

"The people of New Orleans, through the last week, really have spoken and made it clear that they support school reform, they support this superintendent and they support moving forward," said Anderson. Meanwhile, Gambit Weekly had placed a call to the school board and to member Ellenese Brooks-Simms asking for an explanation or comment on the book of Amato's failings. By press time, the calls had not been returned.

click to enlarge CHERYL GERBER


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